If I were to pick one current economic or social trend I consider the most dangerous, it would be the decline of the newspaper industry.
As you probably know, formerly vibrant newspapers across the country have cut their staffs to the nub. Yet they continue hemorrhaging money. Some big-city dailies have closed altogether. Those that remain are wobbly.
Lately, the Herald-Leader announced that it will shut down its presses and sell its main building at 100 Midland Avenue. It will rely on Gannett Publishing Services in Louisville for printing, but its reporting staff will stay in Lexington.
The main culprit in this decline is the Internet. It’s a miraculous invention, as world-changing as the Gutenberg press was in another age. It’s making printed newspapers obsolete.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
But for 20 years, nobody in the newspaper business has been able to figure out how to make newspapers sufficiently profitable online. You can’t give away content electronically for free, or nearly free, fragment your advertising revenue, and still pay scores of staff to report and edit the news. Good newspapers cost a fortune to run.
For the record, I’m not a newspaper employee anymore, although I used to be. I’m only a freelance contributor. My opinions, as always, remain strictly my own.
But I am a diehard believer in the First Amendment.
You might dislike newspapers. You might loathe this paper in particular. You might hate the “lamestream media” generally, in all its forms.
Still, if you value your freedom and democracy itself, you should be troubled about newspapers’ woes. Very troubled.
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Journalist Anthony Lewis once observed that Jefferson said this before he became president. After his election, Jefferson came to resent the press as heartily as anyone, because it pummeled him as it did many public officials.
The reason newspapers were vital in Jefferson’s day and remain vital today is that their duty was and is to, as the maxim goes, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
They exist — and were granted constitutional protections by our nation’s founders — to entertain and inform, yes, but mainly to expose corruption in government, business and similar institutions. Newspapers hold accountable those who without reporters’ prying eyes would abuse the public trust.
Other news media — TV, radio, Internet sites — have rarely earned the kinds of cash that traditional newspapers used to make, and haven’t been able to devote such extensive resources to in-depth reporting.
Whether it was investigating the Watergate debacle or exposing widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, nobody could uncover scandals as reliably as could tenacious and well-funded newspaper reporters. (An aside: the 2015 movie Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of a sex abuse cover-up in the city’s Catholic archdiocese, is the most accurate portrayal of what newspaper reporters do that I’ve ever seen on film.)
Today, newspapers’ social clout among readers and their deterrent effect among wrongdoers have already declined along with that revenue.
The results appear ominous, harbingers of worse to come.
I’ve generally been a fan of President Obama, but his administration, especially under the watch of former Attorney General Eric Holder, has compiled the worst presidential record for abusing press freedoms that we’ve witnessed in decades.
Obama’s administration has prosecuted the whistle-blowers on whom reporters depend, threatened reporters with jail, secretly looked at their credit card and phone records, and tracked their whereabouts, according to a 2014 piece in The New York Times.
Officials at all levels appear more willing than before to flout the First Amendment.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that multiple criminal charges were brought against a weekly newspaper’s publisher in Georgia and his lawyer after they filed an open-records request. Publisher Mark Thomason wanted documents that would show how local Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver spent public money.
The judge apparently persuaded a district attorney to have Thomason and his lawyer indicted and jailed. Released on $10,000 bond, they face felony prosecution for what appears, in the Journal-Constitution’s story, to have been everyday reporting.
“I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned,” the judge said, according to the newspaper.
There used to be a saying in high circles: Never start a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. (The exact wording was a tad more graphic.)
I suspect that many people who occupy powerful offices now sense that newspapers are gravely wounded and increasingly vulnerable. Trust me: Those who abuse the free press are likely to abuse the public even worse when those relentless ink-stained reporters finally vanish.
I don’t know how to fix this industry’s problems. A lot of people who are a lot smarter than I am have worked for years to save newspapers. So far, they seem to be failing.
No, I don’t have a solution. What I do have is a great nagging anxiety, for all Americans.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.